The medical and pharmaceutical advances made after World War II haven't just improved our lives, they have extended them to the point where many of us-especially female "us"-are going to be spending almost three decades as retirees.
For more and more retirees-especially those who want to stay mentally sharp, physically active, and socially connected-those extra decades of life have become a time for sharing, giving back, and volunteering.
While some people call one of the local volunteer placement agencies (see below) about doing volunteer work, most people discover volunteering via the grape vine. "Getting into volunteering is a word-of-mouth kind of thing," says Susan Smith, a project and placement coordinator for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) of Greater Cleveland, which has placed about 3500 volunteers in 180 "stations" [agencies and organizations where volunteers are placed] in and around Cleveland. "People are asked by others to help out on a project-through their church or fraternal organization-or they hear from friends how interesting the volunteer work they are doing is and decide to help out."
If the "fit" is right-and if their friends are involved it usually is-they are hooked on volunteering.
Volunteering is a win-win for everyone involved.
The volunteer-whether he or she is handing out programs at Cleveland Play House, stuffing envelopes for the YWCA, cleaning out cages at the local animal shelter, or acting as a Senior Companion for a frail elderly senior-"is staying active and stimulated and knows they are making a difference," says Gloria Litwinowicz, director of volunteer services at Benjamin Rose, a non-profit social service agency for older adults.
But there is a deeper psychological benefit to volunteering, says geriatric psychologist David Krauss. "It allows people to continue to have social connection and meaningfulness in their lives," he explained. "Those are two very important components for a good self-concept and successful aging." The agencies, organizations, and institutions where volunteers are placed gain extra hands, skills, and insights that lighten the staff's workload, stretch organizational dollars, and increase the organization's reach and visibility in the community.
Getting Started As a volunteer, you'll be delivering direct service (working with the public) or indirect service (working behind the scenes). To get the work assignment you want, expect to be thoroughly interviewed by the volunteer placement agency or organization you want to volunteer with. "This is so you are placed in the right position for you," explained Elizabeth Stein, director of volunteer services at Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
After the initial interview, expect a thorough orientation about the organization where you'll be volunteering, including its history and mission and its policies and regulations. "You are going to be representing the organization to the public so you need to know this," explained Litwinowicz. "If your volunteering puts you in contact with children, the elderly, or the mentally challenged, expect to undergo fingerprinting and a background check," she added.
And, finally, expect orientation and training related to the volunteer "job" you'll be doing. Usually, explained Stein, that means shadowing another volunteer of working one-on-one with an agency staffer until you feel comfortable flying solo.
If things don't work out If a volunteer situation isn't a good fit-and often first placements aren't-talk to the site supervisor about what the problem is, about what's not working, and about what you want, said Litwinowicz. "Often the problem can be solved by changing the day or the time you come in," she added.
If the volunteer position isn't a fit at all-say you volunteer in the pediatric unit at a hospital and find that working with very ill children breaks your heart-give it up. "Just say to the agency's volunteer coordinator 'I can't do this," said Stein. "It happens. No one sees it as failure."
Then renew your search. With the hundreds of non-profits, churches and synagogues, schools and libraries, and civic and issue groups in the area needing volunteers there's a position "out there" for everyone.
These articles were produced by the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, a leading organization that has been assisting older adults and families since 1908 (www.benrose.org), in collaboration with Eileen Beal, a health writer specializing in issues related to aging and caregiving.